Keep on keeping on.

Whilst doing the washing up one evening I mused on the fact that although our frying pan was getting quite old the non-stick surface was still in very good condition, (pity I can’t say the same about the person doing the washing up!).

The story behind the coating on our everyday saucepans is quite remarkable as it was a pure accident that it was discovered.

In 1938 Roy J. Plunkett was working in New Jersey for the DuPont chemical company. As Plunkett attempted to make a new refrigerant, the gas he was using stopped flowing before the bottle’s weight had dropped to the point signalling “empty.” Rather than becoming angry or frustrated he became curious as to the source of the weight, and finally resorted to sawing the bottle apart. He found the bottle’s interior coated with a waxy white material that was oddly slippery, He could have simply thrown the bottle away and dismissed the incident as a freak incident and obtained a new gas bottle but he was intrigued. Analysis showed that the waxy substance was polymerised perfluoroethylene, with the iron from the inside of the container having acted as a catalyst at high pressure. DuPont patented the new fluorinated plastic, PTFE (Polytetrafluroethene), in 1941 and registered the Teflon trademark in 1945. Since then the product of this happy accident has got on to be used in everything from the humble saucepan to the NASA space shuttle.

When faced with a problem or a challenge Plunkett did not become angry or frustrated and give up he persevered in his investigations and so a whole new area of polymer chemistry and engineering was born.

The Bible tells us that we have a God who never gives up and always perseveres. In the Old Testament Moses tells the people not to give up.

“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8)

Later the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews challenged the early church who were drifting back into old ways of thinking and living

“Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence,
‘The Lord is my helper;
   I will not be afraid.
What can anyone do to me?’” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

How do you cope when beset with problems? Is it “If at first you don’t succeed – give up!”? Or do you persevere to find a solution, a way through your difficulties?

I admit at times it is not easy. During the lockdown having to use a computer for delivering worship still leaves me feeling frustrated and worn-out but also determined to try and find a way of doing things better next time.

So take a deep breath, keep trying and remember God has not given up you and is with you in all your struggles and problems.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Circuit Evening Worship 20th September

Thank you for your patience this evening. We hit a number of inexplicable technical difficulties this evening while uploading the service, for example with YouTube’s copyright algorithm refusing to let us include our own music in the service! Revd Malcolm has now successfully streamed the worship service, so do go to the Circuit YouTube Channel to follow along this evening or during the coming week.

Words on the Word – Sunday 20th September

The Lectionary Readings for today:
Exodus 16:2-15
Jonah 3:10-4:11
Psalms 105 and 145
Philippians 1:21-30
Matthew 20:1-16

These readings can be found together online.

The Outrageous Gospel of Grace

In 1997 Philip Yancey published the now classic book, What’s So Amazing About Grace?
If you’ve never read it, buy a copy now. It is filled with story after story exploring examples of grace that catch people completely off their guard. One of the most powerfully moving books on grace ever written. You’re goin’ to need a bigger box of tissues…

Grace is the story that can never be told too often. Grace is the treasure that needs to be seen in churches far more than it is. Grace is the character that demonstrates the transformation we receive when we become Christians, and shows others what God is like. Grace is amazing, radical, outrageous. It flies in the face of the way the rest of the world works. Grace does not use language like “deserves”, “earns”, “worth”, “merit” or even “expected”. Grace is wasteful, prodigal, unconditional, unquestioning.

I want to start today by looking at the Parable of Jonah. What was the truth being conveyed by this story? The truth is, simply, that God is gracious, merciful and slow to anger. The parable provides a helpful and fun way to understand this deeper truth. Jonah is absolutely furious that God desires to forgive Nineveh. Jonah doesn’t want them to repent and be forgiven, he wants them to get the punishment he feels they deserve. The Jews hated the people of Nineveh (see Nahum 2). But God shows that ‘the punishment they deserve’ is precisely what is going to be erased by grace. Jonah’s fierce objection is represented by his going in the opposite direction and by his constant complaining. His sermon is probably the worst ever preached: “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!” – that’s the whole sermon, yet God uses it mightily to convict the people of Nineveh to repent, and they are forgiven after all.

Is there grace in the story of the Exodus? Of course! In this week’s passage we hear more complaining, whining and moaning. The whole congregation of Israelites tries to make the case that they were better off as slaves in Egypt, where at least they had food; indeed, they claim that they would have been better off dying in Egypt than wasting away here in the wilderness. Yet God does not punish them for their petulance. God does not send them back to Egypt in anger. God showers upon them blessings of food in the form of quail and “what-is-it?” (= “manna”), and God commands Moses to strike the rock at Horeb so that they have clean fresh water to drink. Everything in abundance. It’s all grace.

The two psalms set for today recount the story of God’s grace as a call to worship. The God who led our ancestors through the desert is the God we worship today. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love! Give thanks to the Lord! Praise the Lord!

Paul urges the Philippians to show grace, even to their opponents. After all, he explains, this is what Christ Jesus showed to his opponents. Father, forgive them. So live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

Finally, then, we open our gospel reading to find an example of grace so shocking that it continues to anger Christians today. Even church folk say, “It’s not fair!” but this parable, like those in Luke 15, opens up our eyes to the possibilities of God’s grace far exceeding our assumptions of rewards in proportion to effort. Everyone receives what they were promised when they were hired – is that not fair? No-one receives less than the salary agreed. So think instead of the workers in the story. Think of it, if you will, like those dreadful team-picking ordeals at school, where being picked last was only out of grudging duty. Who are the labourers picked first? Why, the healthy, the young and the strong. These people represent the righteous and the ‘religious’ – yes, they get their reward. So who is picked last? Well now it is the weak, the elderly, the infirm. These people represent the ‘outcasts and sinners’. Does the owner of the vineyard treat them the same – oh yes!

What is Jesus saying in this parable? Clearly, that it matters not what ‘points’ you have accrued in your lifetime by the long list of your good works, your church service and your religious behaviour (whatever that means!) – is this becoming a laboured point? I hope so! Whether you have been a Christian all your life, or whether you turn to Christ with your dying breath like the thief on the cross, the reward is the same.

That’s grace. And it really is amazing.

Go with the flow.

Shimshalabim ~ ocean magic.......i've never seen anything like this. | Sea  and ocean, Ocean, Ocean waves

As a child I remember being in the sea off the Cornish coast with my father when I was caught by an undertow. For a few moments it was very frightening fortunately dad was a good swimmer and we got back to land unscathed.

An undertow is not the same thing as a rip tide. The latter can drag you out to sea and drown you. An undertow sweeps you along for a short distance and spits you out. Unless you’re a small child or a poor swimmer, an undertow won’t kill you. But when you’re surprised by a powerful one, it sure feels like it will.

The first impulse many people feel in those moments is to fight the current. That can make things worse. As counterintuitive as the advice may seem, experts recommend that you swim with the undertow until you feel it release you.

I believe that in our lives we can be caught out by an ‘undertow’. Suddenly life takes a different and unexpected turn and we are swept along to a place we don’t want to be. Our reaction is fight against it, to try and get back to the comfortable life we had. We can spend loads of energy fighting the undertow, when what we need to do is to swim with it.

Instead of denying or trying to work our way out of the circumstances we find ourselves in we need to admit candidly that these are real forces pulling us from the shore. At times like these we need to recognise the undertow will keep us in its grip as long as we fight against it. Our release, and our ability to land on a peaceful shore, can only come after we learn to swimming with it.

This may sound like popular psychology to you. And that’s fine. But strictly speaking I’m talking about one of the enduring lessons of the Bible. Christians traditionally talk about spiritual practices like self-examination and forgiveness as paths to spiritual liberation and restored wholeness.

Take for instance an episode from the Joseph story in Genesis (chapters 37-50).

Years after his brothers had sold him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph had risen to the rank of second in command under Pharaoh. A famine swept the land, and those same brothers turned up begging for food.

Joseph managed to hold it together for a while. These men had degraded him, betrayed him, and tossed aside in an unimaginably cruel way. The ‘undertow’ would have been strong for Joseph, and he initially fought against it. 

Had his spiritual ‘undertow’ merely swept him away, he would have killed or imprisoned his tormentors. Instead, he decided to swim with it.

He acknowledged his pain as his own. The text puts it this way: “Joseph could no longer control himself.” He sent his deputies and guards out of the room. “He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it.” (Genesis 45:1, 2)

His liberation and healing came with a dual recognition. He put it this way to his brothers, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” (Genesis 50:20)

The wounds wrought by their hate still ached within him. And yet God’s love was healing those very wounds. He faced a choice: exact revenge and tumble out of control in reaction to their hate or do the hard, honest work of reconciliation and claim the freedom of God’s healing love.

Joseph chose love. He chose freedom. In other words, he swam with the undertow.

Our present circumstances mean that the undertow of Covid19 has swept us off our feet. Do we swim against it, fighting to get back to the way things were? Or do we swim with it for a season and allow it to bring us safely to a different shore?

God bless and stay safe

Alan.

WOTW – Sunday 13th September

Words On The Word this week are based on these lectionary passages:

  • Genesis 50:15-21
  • Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13
  • Romans 14:1-12
  • Matthew 18:21-35

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Year A

Genesis 50:15-21 – Does Joseph Bear A Grudge?
The story of Joseph is the longest narrative in Genesis. If you have ever taken part in the glorious production “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” then you will probably know the story well. It bears repeating.
Joseph, the Dreamer, upsets his brothers in Canaan who sell him off to some passing Slave Traders heading for Egypt, pretending to their Father that he has been killed. They never expected to see him again – indeed, they all lived as though Joseph was no longer alive.
Meanwhile, Joseph has worked his way up, by a succession of ‘God-incidences’ to become the right-hand man of Pharaoh himself, from which position he oversees to storage of surplus grain for the approaching period of famine.
When the famine hits Canaan, Joseph’s brothers come with their begging bowls to Egypt, where they do not recognise Joseph until he makes himself known to them privately. He forgives them, and says that God has brought him through it all.
Joseph is reunited with his father – itself a ‘return from the dead’ story not unlike the story of the Prodigal Son – who is finally able to die a happy man, in Egypt where his family are treated like royalty.
Nevertheless, Joseph remembers his father’s wish for his bones to be buried back home in Canaan, so he makes the trip with his brothers back to Canaan before returning to Egypt again.
It is on the way back that the brothers realise that now Jacob (Israel) is dead and buried, Joseph could well assume the Patriarch role and turn on his brothers for their earlier betrayal of him.
That is how, here in Chapter 50, we find the brothers needing to hear from Joseph whether his forgiveness offered way back in Chapter 45 was truly meant.
And of course, we hear that the forgiveness was indeed real. No grudges. All in the past.
Joseph weeps. The brothers weep. It is a beautiful, sacred moment.

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13 – Bless The Lord O My Soul
Matt Redman’s anthemic song “10,000 Reasons” rightly continues to top the Christian music charts, not just for its use in church worship contexts, but also in personal devotions. It is a powerful song, loved by young and old alike. And it came out just too late to be included in Singing The Faith!
Its refrain “Bless The Lord, O My Soul” is taken directly from Psalm 103 (and also Psalm 104), where it is a phrase of almost ecstatic joy and worship.
Contrast, then, the exuberance of Matt Redman’s music, with the far more reflective Taizé chant of the same words.
But why the praise? What has God done that the Psalmist is so thankful to God?
The answers tumble out in the Psalmist’s words, phrase cascading upon phrase – the “10,000 Reasons” of the song’s title. Even the Taizé version sums them all up in its simple phrase “He leads me into life”.
The “life” of course is nothing less than God’s loving mercy. One commentator describes this Psalm as having through it all “A heartbeat of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love”. A heartbeat that keeps calling us back to who God is. A heartbeat that desires to beat the same way in our lives, so that others might see the Divine is us too.

Romans 14:1-12 – It’s Not All About You
Let us not use this passage to have a go at meat-eaters, vegetarians or vegans in our congregations, please! This is no proof-text for any dietary preference, of course, but rather a lesson in judging others generally.
The passage could equally be applied to those who believe their view of Scripture is better than another’s, or that their grasp of politics is more ‘right’, or those who agree with them on the chairs/pews battlefield are ‘correct’ and the others are wrong. For all such categorisations, the passage here is applicable.
Who are you to pass judgment? asks Paul. Who are you to think that the you are numbered amongst the ‘godly’ and others are not? Indeed, it is not about us at all.
“We do not live to ourselves… – we live to the Lord!”
How does this fit in with our theme this week of forgiveness?
Can you see yourself amongst those whose ears are burning at Paul’s words? Is there someone – not like you – from whom you need to seek forgiveness?

Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgive, Forgive And Forgive Again
Picture it – a new app on the iPhone App Store (other smartphones are available) called “Matthew18”. It’s great. Every time someone sins against you, you simply tap on their name and their count goes up by one. As soon as they get to 77, you don’t have to forgive them any more!
Is that really what Jesus had in mind here? Of course not! This is not a literal number, so pedantic discussions about whether the true text is “Seventy-seven times” or “Seventy times seven” become immaterial. Jesus was simply saying “over and over again”. For those who care about such things, “Seven” was in those days a number which had a sense of ‘completeness’, so “70+7” and “70×7” both meant “a completeness of completenesses” or simply “never ending”.
Forgiveness is at the very heart of what it means to be church. For if a church is to offer anything different from the world, it must reveal Christ. Where two or three are gathered together in Jesus’ Name, there is bound to be a disagreement! Therefore forgiveness is essential, and where there is forgiveness, so there is the presence of Jesus in their midst.
What do you understand by forgiveness? What, indeed, do you understand by sin?
Perhaps one understanding of forgiveness is the sense of letting go, especially of a sin against you. If someone has sinned against you, what is needed for you to let go of it? This is not saying that forgiving is the same as ignoring or forgetting – far from it; for the sake of good order, some sins (most sins?) will have consequences which must be addressed, but once dealt with, moving onwards is important in order to repair the relationship.
Why do we love to keep tabs on how people have wronged us? Why do we take pride in warming to our theme of judgment of a person by saying “And here’s another thing”? Why do we, even as Christians, continue to hold grudges, even years after an event?
Forgiveness is not about seeking power, or gaining the upper hand, it is about restoring right relationships. Indeed, forgiveness is less an act but more a process. A process that requires serious commitment. Perhaps we could translate “Seventy-seven times” as “Seven days a week”.
Forgiveness is therefore a sign of church, a sacred sign – in some churches the rite of confession and absolution is even called a sacrament.
That is why, in every church service, gathered together or dispersed online, we need to include confession, forgiveness and sharing in the peace. As God’s forgiven people, we can better worship God as the united Body of Christ.

Grace and peace,

Stephen

WOTW Sunday 6th September 2020

Lectionary Readings this week:

Exodus 12:1-14
Psalm 149
Ezekiel 33: 7-11
Romans 13:8-14

Matthew 18:15-20

These can all be read online using today’s Lectionary Page.

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Exodus 12: The Passover Lamb

In terms of its significance, this passage is HUGE. The story of the Passover is the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt. It is the story of God’s faithfulness, it is the story of new beginnings, and it sets the scene for the whole New Testament. It’s huge.

In this passage we read about the death of the first born son, and the freedom from bondage which follows. Jesus claims this story for himself, especially in John’s Gospel. For John, Jesus is clearly the first born of God (the ‘only-begotten’ son of 3:16). The death of Jesus (“the first born of God”) brings escape from slavery (to sin) for God’s people. John makes a further Passover connection by making Jesus the ‘Lamb of God‘ and setting the Crucifixion on the day of the Passover, thus making Jesus the Lamb slain with the other Passover lambs.

What must die in order to bring life? In this Post-COVID Era, might even the Church be required to die that it might be born again?

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Psalm 149: A Victor’s Praise Song

What was it like to hear that the war had been won? Many in our Sutton Park Circuit can recall the end of WW2, and many more the news of Victory in the Falklands Conflict of 1982.

Was the victory in each case ascribed to God? There certainly were many joyful church services in England, with church bells ringing out their victory peals. I wonder if German or Argentine Christians ascribed their defeat to God too?

God’s people emerged from their oppression under the Egyptians (see the Exodus reading) with much thanksgiving of the kind recorded in this Psalm. “God is on our side!” was their rallying cry. They felt invincible. But then, slowly, they ascribed their fortunes less to God and more to their own strength – God became sidelined and then they suffered defeat. “God has deserted us!” they cried.

Those of a more mature faith will praise God not only when victory is being celebrated but also in the very depths of despair. Indeed, in despair, faith is the only thing which can be grasped. It is the only possible expression of hope.

Extremism is dangerous – not just for its acts of terror but also for its warped sense of doctrine. I am talking not just about Islamic extremists, but also Christian extremists. Crying “God is great!” in either English or Arabic before marching out with weapons aloft is essentially suggesting that God requires murder in order to bring about peace. Really?

Walter Brueggemann, always a worthy read, offers this thought in his reflections on this Psalm:

This ready juxtaposition of praise to YHWH and exaltation of military power is a recurring liturgical-ideological practice when a nation is at war. The purpose of such a ready juxtaposition is to legitimate military action and to identify such action with the purposes of God. This temptation is a palpable one, of course, in the Old Testament, where “church and state,” “temple and monarchy,” were so closely intertwined. In a directly derivative way, the same practice reappears in the contemporary United States, where chauvinism regularly and readily identifies national purpose with divine intention. Thus, in World War II, it was “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” In more recent U.S. military adventurism in the Mideast, it is recurringly “God Bless America,” a compelling echo of Israel’s ancient and theo-military claim.

Brueggemann, Walter. Psalms (New Cambridge Bible Commentary) (p. 617). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.

Do we also tend to confuse national purpose with divine intervention? If not on a national scale, do we not tend to muddy the waters between our choices and “God’s plan for my life”? How can we explore the interface between the two with integrity?

Yet perhaps we began all this discussion on completely the wrong foot. Reading this Psalm through Christian eyes, rather than through the eyes of God’s post-Exodus people, maybe we misunderstood the very basic word ‘victory’. For surely fighting against ‘flesh and blood’ is not what we are about any more. Just read Ephesians 6. Maybe the only context for which we should be reflecting on ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’ is in the context of Holy Communion, where our meal together represents the flesh (bread) and blood (wine) of Christ, the living body, the Church.

Maybe instead, the real meaning of ‘victory’ is actually ‘salvation’. Maybe, after all, the victory is indeed ours in Jesus Christ. When we re-read this Psalm with a praise song in our mouth because we are victorious over sin and death through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ – then we take this Psalm to a whole new level. Even the double-edged sword of Psalm 149:6 is actually a reference to the Word of God.

To God be the glory, great things he has done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
Who yielded his life in atonement for sin,
Who opened the life-gate that all may go in:

Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord! Let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father, through Jesus the Son;
And give him the glory—great things he has done!

O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
To every believer the promise of God!
And every offender who truly believes,
That moment from Jesus a pardon receives:
Chorus

Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
And great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
But purer, and higher, and greater will be
Our wonder, our rapture, when Jesus we see:
Chorus

Frances Jane van Alstyne (Fanny Crosby) (1820–1915) Public domain text

==================================

Ezekiel 33: The Prophet Must Call For Repentance

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you” my mother used to call after us as we rushed off on yet another ill-advised scheme. Another favourite was the paradoxical “If you break a leg don’t come running to me!”

“You proceed at your own risk” warn the stark signs by the weather-worn coastal footpaths. In other words, don’t sue us. OK. We get it.

Stay safe! has become the new sign-off in emails. The risk of COVID-19 transmission is real and we have had to rely on experts to help us reduce the risk of contagion as much as practically possible. We are all better off because of the advice heeded.

In other areas I wonder if we are increasingly risk-averse. Of course we want to be safe and to keep our loved ones from unnecessary danger, but to my mind a few grazed knees and the occasional bloodied nose are better teachers of risk for children than the cushioned asphalt and soft bark in today’s playgrounds. Indeed, it has been demonstrated that men, in particular, need a certain level of risk to be stimulated – if one risk is minimised (for example the forced use of seatbelts in a car) then they will look for ways of increasing risk elsewhere (for example by driving faster). And who doesn’t love the thrill of the chase in the latest James Bond movie?

We are hopeless about calculating relative probabilities of risk anyway – we may be up in arms about the perceived risk of a new mobile phone mast near our home, while blissfully carrying on smoking or sunbathing – each carrying far higher risks than the most powerful mobile phone mast.

Can this be taken too far? Warnings are still important of course. In this passage we find Ezekiel being summoned to warn the people of God or face God’s wrath himself. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Ezekiel warns the people, but it does no good. God’s people chose to ignore the warnings and so ended up taking full responsibility for what followed.

And that, my friends, is how the story of the Exile begins.

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Romans 13: Love Is The Fulfilling Of The Law

Let’s get this straight. Again. Being a Christian does not mean “Keeping the 10 Commandments”. Paul had plenty to say against that sort of teaching (known as “legalism”). Being a Christian is following Jesus into fullness of life, a life he named as “The Kingdom of God” – a life of justice, joy, peace and love. This is the passage in Romans which explains why Love has effectively abolished the 10 Commandments.

Love, says Paul, is what you are supposed to be doing. It’s not some wishy-washy gooey feeling, it’s meant to be hard work. Love is patient, kind – all of that – yet it remains a conscious choice and one which we must cultivate. When we love, says Paul, that’s when we are fulfilling the Law. In fact, “Love God, Love your neighbour” is absolutely the same as your prohibitions and exhortations of the Commandments of Moses. For if you loved God, you wouldn’t set up false images or profane God’s name. If you truly loved your neighbour, you wouldn’t murder them, steal from them or sleep with them outside marriage. Love does no wrong, so love is the Law of God.

It’s as clear as day is from night, urges Paul. Live in the day, live in the light.

Wake up, live, and love.

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Matthew 18: Unity Within The Church

Every sermon I’ve heard on this passage, and probably every sermon I have preached too, has started with the phrase “If another member of the church sins against you”. It struck me this week that perhaps we have been getting it wrong all the time.

You see, it’s so easy to define the church from our position. To start with the premise that we are “in” and then to go on to justify our in-ness and then define what “others” have to do in order to be counted as “in” as well. To put it bluntly, we often say, “I’m saved/redeemed/doctrinally-sound and this is what you have to do, poor you, in order that you can be too”.

The stark picture from Scripture, however, is that wherever we draw the circle around ourself and our friends, and call the circle “church”, we find Jesus not inside the circle but outside it with the “outcasts and sinners“. Let’s just get rid of the circle altogether, and remind ourselves of John Wesley’s “Four Alls”. No-one is beyond the reach of God’s love. And that, only by God’s amazing grace and mercy, even includes us.

So look at this passage again. Perhaps you’ve been attending your church for years. Now read the opening words of Jesus in this reading as though they are addressed, not to you, but to someone else. Maybe even to one of those ‘outsiders’ who has only joined the church recently. Jesus is saying to them, “Has somebody grieved your Spirit? Then speak to them and point out their fault.”

And maybe that person at fault is actually you, and it is you who are being summoned. Then, maybe, because you find it all so preposterous, they are obliged to bring others along, and eventually the whole church. If you still can’t be reconciled with them, then perhaps it is you who has to leave, not them.

Yet this passage is not about creating division but about working for unity. It is absolutely not a proof text for forcing others to change to be like us, nor even for others to force us to be like them. It is, however, a call to love. A call to forgive. A call to reconciliation.

The church that reconciles itself amongst its own members is a better beacon for God’s love than a church with any number of grand words or costly outreach programs. And there, then, gently within its midst, where the church is gathered not in the name of bruised egos but in the name of the risen Jesus, there Christ is among them.

Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

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Grace and peace,
Stephen

“I have longed to see you”.

For I long to see you that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you, that is that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith both yours and mine. Romans v 11/12

This is St Paul opening his letter to the Romans. The letter was written from Corinth where he was staying at the time. It is perhaps the most important letter in the New Testament and addresses many pastoral and theological questions. These questions still engage the best minds in the Church today.

Paul had never visited the Roman Church. Nevertheless he seems well informed about their affairs. They would have been a small community living in tenement blocks on what is still the unfashionable side of the River Tiber. They would have comprised gentile converts and Jewish converts and that matters in view of the contents of the letter. He says that he wishes to bring them some spiritual gift to strengthen them but as he says it he immediately qualifies himself. Mutual encouragement, mutual ministry are what he is looking forward to. He is expecting to receive as much ministry and encouragement from them as he gives. He needs them. After all they are God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.

At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that we are members one of another-members of Christ-grafted into his body. The Christian way is a life together-our worship is what we do together-we pray together to “our” father, when bread is broken and wine poured out it is rightly said that we break the bread-we come to the table-we lift up our hearts to the Lord. Togetherness matters. And this is what we have deprived of for months. We long to be together again just as Paul longed to meet the congregation in Rome.

Communicating remotely either in writing or by way of live streaming or whatever can never be a substitute for being together. Even the use of Zoom and other video conferencing apps cannot be a wholly sufficient substitute for face to face meetings. Nevertheless at the moment it’s probably the best we can do. Poor Paul he was criticised however he put his message across. He writes (2 Corinthians 10 verse 10) quoting his critics, “his letters are weighty and strong but his bodily presence his weak and his speech is of no account”. But some critics were unimpressed by the letters as well. (See 2 Peter 3 verse 5)

As for me I have offered my writings to the blog in the hope that they may be useful to you. Now that I have the realistic prospect of meeting some of you in person and as I am also about to go on holiday I am going to lay down my pen for a while.

Paul can supply a suitable benediction to close;

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. (2 Corinthians 13 verse 14)

Mr Wesley’s Bible

The Museum of Methodism – The Museum of Methodism & John Wesley's House

In a previous post I spoke about how as Methodists we have a particular ‘Wesleyan’ way of thinking about faith and theology. Much of that thinking stems out of the way as Methodists approach our bible, not surprisingly we do it methodicaly! 

Before I became a minister when I had a ‘proper job'(!) I would often travel with work which would mean an overnight stay in an hotel. If I ever forget to take my bible with me I wasn’t too worried as there would be a Gideons bible in the hotel room I could use. One of the good things in the Gideons version of the bible is an index which suggests bible passages that will help you in times of need, whether you are anxious, depressed, facing challenges etc. It means you don’t have to rifle through the pages trying to find a particular passage to offer help or comfort. 

The phrase “searching the scriptures” is old-fashioned, as if we are looking for buried treasure. Yet this is an accurate description for a truly Wesleyan way to read the Bible. In his preface to The Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, one of his most important texts, John Wesley describes his purpose in having done the background research and then having written the commentary notes. The Explanatory Notes are not written for intellectuals or professional scholars. Rather, they are written “for plain, unlettered men, who understand only their mother tongue, and yet reverence and love the word of God, and have a desire to save their souls.” This comment, along with many other statements Wesley makes about the Bible, demonstrate that for Wesley, reading the Bible is for the explicit purpose of Christian transformation. We “search” the scriptures, leaving no stone unturned, expecting to encounter the living God and discover life-changing guidance in its pages.

John Wesley was sometimes mocked for his deep love of scripture. Some of his detractors called him a “Bible moth.” He called himself a “man of one book,” an interesting designation considering he read widely from many disciplines, including science and medicine. In fact the most popular book in his lifetime that he wrote was Primitive Physic, a guide to holistic medicine. When he referenced himself as a man of one book, then, what he meant was the central role the Bible played in his thought and life. In reading through his journals, sermons, and other writings, it is obvious that his life and thoughts  have been shaped by the Bible.

Even so, Wesley didn’t understand the Bible to be infallible in the way some interpreters prefer today. As a life long high, tory Anglican priest Wesley’s doctrine of scripture was guided by the Anglican Articles of Faith and the Confession and they never refer to the text of scripture as “inspired,” nor do they call the Bible “the Word of God.” It’s clear that Wesley believed the Bible was inspired by God, but it is doubtful that he should be characterised as an inerrantist in the contemporary sense of the term. The Anglican Confession states that the Bible “reveals the word of God.” Despite his deep love of scripture, Wesley never preached a sermon focusing exclusively on the Bible, nor did he write a treatise about it. For Wesley scripture was the ocean on which he sailed his boat of faith allowing the bible to permeating his thought, words, and actions.

In his preface to the Explanatory Notes upon the Old Testament, Wesley advises the following. First, the reader should set aside time morning and evening, habitually, to read a full chapter each from both the Old and New Testaments. If there is not time for two chapters, the reader should select one chapter or a portion of one chapter. The goal in this reading is for one purpose: to know and do the will of God. Because the goal is Christian formation, Wesley urges readers to keep in mind at all times the basic themes and doctrines of the Christian faith as interpretive lenses. The reader must pray for the Holy Spirit to illumine his or her mind to receive the spiritual understanding of the text, something that doesn’t happen automatically and without which the reading will be useless. While reading one should move slowly through the passage, pausing to reflect often so that the text can aid the reader in self-examination, with the scripture sometimes comforting, sometimes challenging, and sometimes convicting the reader of the need for change. Finally, one should immediately put into practice any guidance or instructions that come through this twice-daily practice of searching the scriptures.

The goal in searching the scriptures is that we increasingly bear the love and grace of God to our neighbours because God’s word has become alive in us. Sometimes when searching the scriptures we don’t seem to notice anything that speaks to us. We may not always feel anything, or find ourselves drawn to an image or idea in the text. There are times when we read the Bible and, despite our best intentions, it seems dry to us. At such times, we may rest in the love of God and simply let the experience be what it is. The important thing is to regularly pray with scripture in this way. Over time, as we habitually search the scriptures with our hearts open to God, we will be shaped by the word.

God bless and happy reading. Alan.

Something for Sunday

Matthew 16 verse 24 Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

Very often these days when I think about a sermon for Sunday I look back in the file to see if I have addressed the text before. Matthew 16 verse 24 is a challenging verse and I was slightly surprised to discover that I hadn’t preached on it. But when I came to reflect on the text and its implications I wasn’t surprised anymore. Good news? Is this good news? Jesus is telling his disciples that if they are to be his followers they must go all the way. That is to say they must submit to carry the means of their own execution, to endure the mockery and scorn of the crowds and to be put to death in hideously prolonged and painful manner. That is what is meant by taking up the cross. It doesn’t bear thinking about so we don’t think about it.

How might we avoid the message of these words and similar ones in the gospel record?

One method is to pretend that Jesus never said it or if he did say it it was as a kind of rhetorical flourish. Sometimes we might say to someone; and if you fail your head will roll. Nobody seriously believes that public decapitation will be the result of a poor performance.

Another tactic of avoidance is to refer to a text like Luke 9 verse 23 where Jesus speaks of taking up one’s cross daily. Nobody can take up their cross on a daily basis. Remember what the cross means. It’s not to be compared to a minor physical handicap, a disagreeable boss or an unhappy relationship.

A similar approach is to treat the cross as a kind of metaphor for sacrificial living and loving. Jesus is teaching us to live unselfishly promising that if we do we will live more satisfying lives. No doubt that is true. Indeed I have said it myself in one form or another many times. But that’s not what is being said here.

What is being proclaimed here is a complete revolution in human affairs. The coming of Jesus marks the end of the old order-the former mode of life. Jesus calls upon his disciples then and now to embrace death to the old order in order to receive life in the new order. Through this revolutionary act the old order is judged and found wanting. This is a basic point not just in Matthew but in all the gospels. Discipleship is costly and as Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote: “When Christ calls a man he bids him come and die”. For baptism, an event not usually associated with death in most people’s minds a key text is Romans 6 verse 3 where St Paul writes: “Do you know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” Well most people don’t know but we need to know and we need to keep the idea in the forefront of our minds.

What is the cost of not knowing? Christianity is turned into a benevolent form of do-gooding according to the precepts of the present time. It becomes what I like to call in my more cynical moments: political correctness with hymns. Such a philosophy of moral improvement, kindly sentiments and humanitarian ideals all associated of course with Christian texts and the idea of Jesus as a moral teacher pushes out the historical Christian faith with its radical demands. This has been summed up in a famous quotation, one of my favourites: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (full reference supplied on request)

A religion based on earnest self-improvement and effort is ultimately unsatisfying and depressing. We need to be in Charles Wesley’s words ransomed, healed restored and forgiven and then, Charles Wesley again, “we can show by deeds that our sins are forgiven”. And thus we show that we have passed from death to life and our hearts are filled with joy. Anything else is too gloomy for words.

We proclaim Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again”.  And one way in which he comes again is through our acts of love for one another. As Mother Theresa said: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours”. Nice one Tess!

If we are honest we know that Christianity has now become a counter-cultural movement. That’s nothing to be upset about; indeed we should embrace this moment with joy. What I find exasperating is the sight of Christian leaders refusing to acknowledge this and claiming for themselves all kinds of ancient privileges and establishment status. No brothers and sisters you were not called to be Chaplains to Pontius Pilate and his bodyguard.

When I was growing up all my family were Christians of one kind or another. That generation has passed and now I find myself in a tiny minority of believers. I must be careful what I say if I am not to attract comment such as: you don’t believe that do you! I have also discovered that I am a more traditional and orthodox Christian than my parents. I find myself saying quite frequently: “and that is what Christians have always believed”. Such sentiments are not always acceptable even today among thoroughly modern Methodists.

Most of us when we grow up want to embrace modernity and serve the present age with body and soul. Slowly I became disillusioned with this approach finding the present age to be a spiritual desert however much it promised by way of amusement and entertainment in “vanity fair”. For me the Christian faith came to seem more and more attractive and to offer answers at both the political and the personal level. But I still wanted to have my cake and eat it-to save my life for myself. Then I encountered texts like todays and I saw the light. Love bade me welcome. I put my doubts to one side and I followed what I now know to be the true light. Now I am quite sure, despite the cost, following Jesus is the best way.